Scientists Want You to Help Them Find Nearby Alien Planets Please

The Red Dots Campaign will target Ross 154, Barnard’s Star, and Proxima Centauri, three red dwarfs within ten light years of our solar system.

Hey, you: Want to help search for potentially habitable worlds around nearby alien suns? ‘Course you do. Well, on Monday, the Pale Red Dot Campaign, the team behind last year’s discovery of the closest known exoplanet to our own solar system—Proxima b—launched a new initiative, with a focus on citizen science.

Building on the public interest in Proxima b, which is approximately four light years away and orbits the red dwarf Proxima Centauri, scientists led by Guillem Anglada-Escudé from Queen Mary University of London are inviting volunteers to join the Red Dots Campaign. Anyone can download the software needed to analyze raw findings from surveys of neighboring systems that may host undiscovered planets, and to present their interpretations in a professional-amateur collaborative forum.

As opposed to the campaign that spotted Proxima b, in which research was peer-reviewed before its public release, the Red Dots Campaign observations will be released and informally discussed online in real time. Official research published about the project will still be peer-reviewed, however.

The project widens its aperture from Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to Earth, to include two other red dwarfs within a radius of ten light years: Ross 154 and Barnard’s Star, both of which are already popular destinations in science fiction.

Though these stars are less than a quarter of the Sun’s size, they are projected to outlive our star by trillions of years. This longevity has made red dwarfs speculative candidates for eventual settlement, though their tendency to spit deadly flares has cast some doubt on their overall hospitality.

Anglada-Escudé and his colleagues will monitor the luminosity of these slow-burning stars with several telescopes and instruments, such as the European Southern Observatory (ESO)’s HARPS planet-searcher at La Silla, Chile, the Sierra Nevada Observatory in Granada, Spain, and the Bayfordbury Observatory in Hertfordshire, UK. The team will be searching for subtle dips in brightness that might signal that a planet has passed in front of the star, from our perspective on Earth.

Anyone can follow this process on the campaign site, and use a free toolkit of programs to analyze the data for themselves. Want to figure out what the habitable limits around one of the target red dwarfs, or any star for that matter? The University of Washington has a calculator for that. Want to map out a light curve, which is a star’s luminosity over time? Test out the delightfully acronymed Bad-Ass Transit Model cAlculatioN (BATMAN) program. An exoplanetary transit is, after all, just a Bat-Signal on a cosmic scale.

Given the enormous wealth of exoplanets that has been detected over the past two decades, including 219 new candidate worlds announced by NASA on Monday, there’s every reason to be optimistic that the Red Dots Campaign could uncover more over the coming months, in our own stellar neighborhood.

 

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